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Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property Services

January 26, 2009

BRENDA URNIKIS-NEGRO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
AMERICAN FAMILY PROPERTY SERVICES, INC., NICOLE LASH, AND TODD LASH, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Brenda Urnikis-Negro sued her former employer, American Family Property Services, Inc., and two of its principals under the Fair Labor Standards Act, seeking to recover for unpaid overtime wages. At the bench trial held after the Court denied Urnikis-Negro's motion for summary judgment, she contended that she was entitled to be compensated for over 2,500 hours of overtime at a rate of $37.50 per hour, or over $90,000, and she sought a doubling of this pursuant to FLSA's liquidated damages provision.

The Court found in Urnikis-Negro's favor regarding liability but found her testimony regarding the hours she had worked "significantly exaggerated and largely lacking in credibility." Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs. Inc., No. 06 C 6014, slip op. at 17 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2008). The Court found that Urnikis-Negro had worked approximately 1,490 overtime hours and, as defendants urged, calculated the unpaid wages using the "fluctuating hours" method described in Department of Labor regulations. See id. at 19-20. The Court concluded that the unpaid overtime compensation amounted to $12,233 and awarded Urnikis-Negro an equal amount of liquidated damages, for a total of $24,466.

Urnikis-Negro then petitioned for an award of attorney's fees and expenses pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). In her petition for fees, Urnikis-Negro alleged that her "unedited" attorney's fees and expenses amounted to $154,710. However, after the information-exchange process mandated by Local Rule 54.3, she reduced her request to $126,327. Defendants, who paid their legal counsel approximately $70,000 in attorney's fees and expenses to defend the case, made specific objections to $46,647 of the amount Urnikis-Negro's counsel requested (leaving a little under $80,000) and also argued that Urnikis-Negro should not be awarded fees greater than the amount of damages the Court had awarded. In her reply brief, Urnikis-Negro reduced the amount she requested to $117,504. Urnikis-Negro also stated that her counsel had spent significant time in connection with the petition for fees and said she would file a supplemental request later.

On December 15, 2008, the Court issued a preliminary ruling, dealing with certain disputed points. Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs., Inc., No. 06 C 6014, 2008 WL 5227179 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 15, 2008). The Court rejected defendants' contention that the fee award should not exceed the damage award but stated that it would, as required by law, consider "the degree of success [Urnikis-Negro] achieve[d] in deciding how generous a fee award should be." Spegon v Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 175 F.3d 544, 558 (7th Cir. 1999), cited in Urnikis-Negro, 2008 WL 5227179, at *1.

The Court stated, however, that it was unable to assess the reasonableness of Urnikis-Negro's fee request completely due to the fact that plaintiffs had submitted only day-by-day information regarding attorney time without any overall statement of the time spent or, more particularly, an activity-based breakdown of the time spent per attorney. Id. at *2. The Court found that it was not unreasonable to have two attorneys work on, prepare for trial, and try the case, but that certain tasks (e.g. preparation for and attendance at depositions) did not reasonably require two lawyers; it was unreasonable to have more than two attorneys working on the case at a particular time; and that it was unreasonable to shift to defendants both the time required for the second-chair trial attorney to learn the case and the overlapping time her predecessor spent on the case. Id. The Court sought further information geared toward quantifying these factors and also directed Urnikis-Negro to quantify the time claimed for preparing and briefing the fee petition. Id. at *3.

The parties have provided the additional information the Court has requested. In her final submission, plaintiff has reduced her fee request by about $5,000, to $112,424.25. The Court rules on the fee petition as stated below.

Discussion

As a prevailing plaintiff, Urnikis-Negro is entitled to an award of reasonable attorney's fees. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); Batt v Micro Warehouse, Inc., 241 F.3d 891, 893 (7th Cir. 2001). The Court begins by determining the so-called "lodestar" -- a reasonable hourly rate multiplied by the number of hours reasonably expended on the litigation. Small v. Richard Wolf Med. Instruments Corp., 264 F.3d 702, 707 (7th Cir. 2001). Defendants have not objected to the hourly rates proposed by Urnikis-Negro, so the Court turns to the question of whether the attorney time requested for her counsel was reasonably expended.

In response to the Court's request for an activity-based breakdown of each attorney's time, Urnikis-Negro's counsel provided the chart that appears on page six of this decision. The chart does not include time spent working on the fee petition. The chart reflects that five attorneys expended significant time working on the case at various stages: Aaron Maduff, an experienced partner in the firm of Maduff & Maduff who served as lead counsel; Michael Maduff, a partner with even more experience who appears to have focused primarily on settlement negotiations and review of the summary judgment motion, as well as on litigation of the fee petition; Christine Hatzidakis, an associate who second-chaired the trial and came into the case only at the trial preparation phase; and two other associates, Jason Johnson and Meaghen Russell, who appear to have worked on the case throughout its duration.

Plaintiffs' counsel provide an explanation for why so many lawyers worked on the case -- claimed efficiencies from division of labor -- but it does not render reasonable the time spent by five lawyers working on a case that was perhaps more complicated than some FLSA cases but, all in all, not a particularly complex case. The Seventh Circuit has noted, in the related context of determining the reasonableness of an attorney's hourly rate, that judges in this District have noted that "FLSA cases are less complex than Title VII and other employment-related civil rights litigation." Small, 264 F.3d at 708. Though the Court would hesitate to go quite that far, the comparison is accurate as a general rule, and this case was not terribly complex: with regard to liability, it largely boiled down to a credibility determination concerning the nature of the work Urnikis-Negro performed.

Given these circumstances, the Court adheres to its earlier determination that in this case (though not in every case, as plaintiff suggests the Court is saying), two lawyers were plenty, and more than two were excessive, with some exceptions noted below. Though the Court acknowledges plaintiff's division-of-labor point, we are not talking about an assembly line here. When labor on particular legal tasks is divided among different attorneys, some overlap is virtually inevitable, and some inefficiencies are likely. In a large and/or complex case, it is not unreasonable, from a fee-shifting perspective, to incur some such inefficiencies, but the same is not true in a modestly-sized and relatively uncomplicated case like this one.

The chart provided by Urnikis-Negro's counsel follows:

For the reasons stated above, the Court will exclude, as duplicative and/or excessive and unreasonably shifted ...


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